In response to the abuse of the Trump administration, many have become social media hyper-vigilantes. Is this a good thing?
Survivors of family and intimate partner violence adopt many strategies for self-preservation, both with and without conscious intent. Two strategies I adopted in the past were numbing myself with alcohol and drugs, which was not very effective, and volunteering with battered women’s service organizations, which both educated and healed me.
In the 1970s, following my escape from violence at the hands of my adoptive parents and, later, my high school boyfriend, I also worked to prevent future abuse by closely monitoring cues, like the heaviness of a footfall or the tone of a voice.
Back then, I didn’t know I was suffering from PTSD, a diagnosis that didn’t enter the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, and wasn’t applied to survivors of child abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV) until the 1990s. Today, I recognize my response as “hypervigilance,” a common symptom of PTSD that’s described as the “experience of being constantly tense and ‘on guard,’” acting “on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near.”
Hypervigilance wasn’t the only trauma symptom I experienced — I also endured recurring nightmares, intense anger, and startle responses to movements near my head — but it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in the context of our current political climate.
It’s not a stretch to say Trump behaves similarly to abusers. Many characteristics of batterers — grandiosity, alignment with traditional gender roles, using sex as an act of aggression, blaming others for their actions, denying or minimizing their own bad behavior, losing their tempers explosively, insisting on control — aptly apply to the leader of the free world.
In turn, I’ve seen many respond to Trump — and, for that matter, to other politicians acting in abusive ways — with the same kind of alertness I adopted while experiencing PTSD as a survivor of abuse. Only now, instead of taking place IRL, this hypervigilance plays out on social media.
Soon after the 2016 Republican victory, psychologists began talking about “Post-Election Stress Disorder”(PESD) — a way to describe the anxiety and depression that affected many after Trump ascended to the White House, accompanied by symptoms like headaches, lost sleep, and stomache pain.
My own anxiety began during the brutal election process, and has not abated since. And in my state of despair, I’ve often turned to social media.
As the election drew near, I checked multiple feeds for news each morning, and then each night. Every new misogynist revelation, every new racist pronouncement, left me enraged or numb. I felt fearful. I joined secret Facebook groups for survivors of domestic violence, where I read other women’s posts about being triggered by political rhetoric and disclosures of abusive behavior. My morning writing practice fizzled out in favor of huddling under the quilts with my phone, tapping at apps that kept me informed. My obsessive social-media-and-news-outlet-checking persisted post-election. After the inauguration, I kept checking with renewed diligence, even flushing spare minutes at my day job down the Twitter wormhole.
By March of 2017, knowing my behavior was unhealthy, I resolved to keep at least my time outdoors screen-free. Walking my dogs in the woods, I’d tripped over a tree root while checking the New York Times on my phone.
My compulsive checking had reached a level that felt familiar; I was behaving the same way I did as a child in an abusive home, and as a teenager in an abusive intimate relationship. Walking on eggshells. Staying alert to mood changes in the abusers. Exercising hypervigilance. Back then, I hung on to the fantasy that if I could predict violence, I could prevent the next black eye, broken nose, split lip. Now, I was on alert for all the ways the government planned to abuse me and other women and marginalized people.
I published a short blog post, and later a poem, about the parallels between intimate, personal violence and the politically-induced terror in my [non] writing life. More women than I would have thought responded to the two pieces, saying something along the lines of “Yes, me too.”
One woman, a survivor of extreme violence, “understood instantly that having an openly avowed abuser elected to the presidency would give license to the closeted abusers everywhere.” Afraid to leave her house after the election, she relied on social media for support from women who were expressing similar fears, and as a safe place where she could monitor political developments. Today, she uses social media to stay connected with allies, and to keep tabs on political bullies and their agendas. “I would not say that the terror has abated,” she wrote to me in May 2017, “but that I have come to live with it, as I did in childhood.” Her hypervigilance continues.
Abusers and batterers can snap at any moment, which is perhaps the cause of hypervigilance among survivors. Karen Sheets, a social worker who teaches life skills in a Displaced Homemaker Program in Florida, calls it “crisis mode.” Her program frequently serves women escaping violence, and collaborates closely with the local domestic violence agency. Sheets, herself an IPV survivor, says that women can become addicted to crisis and continue to act in crisis mode long after the abusive situation is behind them.
Can post-election anxiety end for anyone when the president keeps the hits coming as fast as he has?
Being on such high alert as a PTSD sufferer can be exhausting, and in many ways detrimental to mental and emotional health — but it can also function as an adaptive strategy, helping one to make snap decisions under stress and avoid future harm. Studies of vigilant and hypervigilant decision-making often privilege the vigilant method, which relies on fact-gathering and consideration of multiple options. But many researchers have concluded that being hypervigilant is more effective in high-stress situations when the stakes are high. One study even found that abuse survivors in a state of hypervigilance walked in a way that reduced their perceived vulnerability, and concluded that this, in theory, would reduce the potential for harm.
There are, it seems, particular benefits to hypervigilance in the context of our current political climate. While IPV is often unpredictably explosive, institutionalized violence against American women, like institutionalized violence against African-Americans, is the result of policies and ideas that evolve over years. We need to monitor any development, alteration, or affirmation of those policies and ideas by the government so we can make decisions under stress and avoid abuse. With social media — the 24/7 panopticon — we can monitor threats, but at a safe distance, and we can do it obsessively.
At its best, this heightened social media altertness can also manifest as tangible action. This summer, for instance, the hypervigilance of millions of Americans on Twitter and Facebook played a key role in thwarting GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s too soon to quantify social media’s role in keeping citizens informed and in giving citizens platforms to exert pressure on officials — but the proliferation and popularity of voter-action sites like 5 Calls and Indivisible since the 2016 election demonstrate the existence of a demand for ways to use social media to both monitor danger and take action in response.
The Pew Research Center, in a study released in October 2016, found that nearly one-third of politically engaged users believe social media platforms allow them to get involved with issues that matter to them. Meanwhile, the anecdotal evidence is on your feeds and mine. Social media allowed me to track the status of proposed anti-ACA legislation, it gave me access to inspiration through posts from ADAPT members, and it offered me more ways to contact elected officials and make my voice heard. It gave that to me, and millions of others.
We’re not social media obsessives — we’re hyper-vigilantes who aim to enforce the principles of democracy.
In my nightmares, and in my obsessive following of both progressive and conservative social media feeds, I’m re-living the terror and anxiety of my teenage years on a macro level. America has long been awash in racist and misogynist violence. The recent election has validated and further normalized that violence. Our government seeks to put the health and safety of the majority of Americans at risk: women, immigrants, gay, lesbian, and trans people, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, and anyone who doesn’t look white. It’s much too much like the not-so-old days, when men were legally entitled to rape and beat their wives, when parents could abuse their children with impunity, when communities and governments sanctioned such behavior and excused it as “private family business.”
In the face of all this, I have mixed feelings about whether to stop my relentless checking of Facebook, The Washington Post, The New York Times, or Charles M. Blow’s Twitter feed. Walking on eggshells doesn’t guarantee that the sleeping monster won’t wake up. Checking the news 20 times a day won’t, by itself, prevent the next police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, or violence against immigrants, or the abrogation of women’s control over their own bodies. But don’t all those stories need to be told and re-told, and read and heard and analyzed? After all, if I hadn’t been checking, I might have missed Paul Ryan’s response to Kevin McCarthy’s assertion that Putin pays Trump. “No leaks, all right? This is how we know we’re a real family here,” he said. “What’s said in the family stays in the family.”
That sounds a lot like the 20th century rhetoric of abuse that enabled and excused paternalistic violence against women and children. The victim in me wants to say those days are over. But the watcher in me says pay attention. To everything. Every single word.